Yanina Cywinska “The Sugar Plum Nut”
A few weeks ago I was sent out with a news intern to shoot an interview with an 82 year old woman in Concord, California, and was told that she had been in the war — World War Two.
She greeted us with sparkling eyes and a quick sense of humor. I clipped a microphone to her and started the camera rolling and then was astounded by the story that poured out of her.
She had been born in Poland and raised in Warsaw. Her father was a doctor. After Germany invaded and they were living in occupation, her father was summoned to treat a high-ranking German officer inside the Warsaw Ghetto, where 500,000 Jews were barricaded in an area of only several city blocks. He was so appalled by the living conditions that he began smuggling food into the starving inhabitants. He was caught and he and his wife and children were loaded into railroad boxcars, along with the Jews from the Ghetto, and sent into the countryside.
When the train stopped and the people were herded out they were in a barbed wire prison. They were sent to get showered so they could begin to work. The doors to the shower chamber were closed, then the gas began to come out of the vents. When Yanina awoke she was lying among a pile of corpses, among them her family. Amazingly, she was still alive. A Jewish woman worker shook her to her feet and pressed her to work in one of the working gangs.
Yanina had survived her first day in Auschwitz. She was almost eleven. Several more times she would face death, and would be the only person in the group to survive. She had one scrap of a dream to cling onto to keep her alive, to one day be a ballet dancer in Paris.
It’s one of the most extraordinary stories I’d ever heard. When we returned to the station I told Millicent Ozdaglar, the special projects producer at KCRA, that I would write this story — and that it would be long. Every now and then you work on a story that fills you with so much passion that you don’t want to hand off to someone else to put together, but that you have to your own take on how you feel it should be done and have to see it through to the end. This was one of those stories.
This story ran on KCRA’s once-a-month news magazine program Common Ground on Sunday evening, April 18, 2011.
Yanina has poured her life story out into a book, The Sugar Plum Nut, which you cannon put down.